Literature

A Short Analysis of Sir Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 67: ‘Hope, art thou true, or dost thou flatter me?’

Astrophil and Stella is the first long sonnet sequence in English literature. Although other poets had already written sonnet sequences – namely the largely forgotten Anne Locke and the unjustly neglected George Gascoigne – it was the all-round Renaissance man Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), in the early 1580s, who first unleashed the potential of the themed sonnet sequence in English, using the cycle to tell the story of the poet’s doomed love for a married woman. ‘Hope, art thou true, or dost thou flatter me?’ is the 67th sonnet in Astrophil and Stella, and the poem sees Sidney’s alter ego, Astrophil (‘star-lover’), entertaining the hope that Stella (‘star’) might be taking pity on him and growing fond of him:

Hope, art thou true, or dost thou flatter me?
Doth Stella now begin with piteous eye
The ruins of her conquest to espy:
Will she take time, before all wracked be?
Her eyes’ speech is translated thus by thee.
But fail’st thou not in phrase so heavenly high?
Look on again, the fair text better try:
What blushing notes dost thou in margin see?
What sighs stolen out, or killed before full born?
Hast thou found such, and such-like arguments?
Or art thou else to comfort me foresworn?
Well, how so thou interpret the contents,
I am resolved thy error to maintain,
Rather than by more truth to get more pain.

Anyone who has ever been in love (and that’s pretty much everyone, right?) must have felt something along the lines of what Sir Philip Sidney describes so brilliantly in ‘Hope, art thou true, or dost thou flatter me?’, a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet rhymed abbaabbacdcdee. Having reached the nadir of despair, thinking the one we love will never return our affections, we take the tiniest sign of interest from them as an indication that they do, after all, feel the same way about us.

This, in summary, is the gist of Sonnet 67 from Astrophil and Stella.
Hope, art thou true, or dost thou flatter me?
Doth Stella now begin with piteous eye
The ruins of her conquest to espy:
Will she take time, before all wracked be?

Sidney (or Astrophil) addresses hope, personifying it as Hope: is this for real, he says, and does Stella, the woman I love, actually start to realise what an emotional wreck she’s made of me by being so adorable? Will she do the right thing and show me some love, before it’s too late? However, here, Sidney deploys military language, with ‘conquest’ suggesting Stella is a conqueror destroying her enemy, and the admonition to ‘take time’ directs her to give pause before ‘finishing him off’, dispatching her poor stricken foe (or prey).

Her eyes’ speech is translated thus by thee.
But fail’st thou not in phrase so heavenly high?
Look on again, the fair text better try:
What blushing notes dost thou in margin see?

We then begin to realise, however, that Astrophil is probably entertaining a false hope – at least, possibly. Stella hasn’t said anything to give him this impression: it’s only her ‘eyes’ speech’ that has filled him with this optimism. He himself wonders whether he has misinterpreted the signs he’s been getting (or thinks he’s getting) from Stella, directing Hope to take another look at the ‘text’ of Stella’s eyes (‘fair text’ is a nice touch: texts of the Bible and other documents used in scholarly study were sometimes labelled ‘fair texts’ because they were more reliable than others, but ‘fair’ here, of course, carries the secondary meaning of ‘beautiful’). Can Hope discern more reliable signs of Stella’s fondness for him, such as blushes (in the ‘margin’ of her eyes, on her cheeks, like the margins of a page of text) or sighs, born of love, and half-suppressed to hide how she really feels.

What sighs stolen out, or killed before full born?
Hast thou found such, and such-like arguments?
Or art thou else to comfort me foresworn?
Well, how so thou interpret the contents,
I am resolved thy error to maintain,
Rather than by more truth to get more pain.

In the rest of the sonnet, Sidney strikes at the heart of what it means to entertain such hope: even as he is commanding Hope to check again for more convincing ‘arguments’ or proof of Stella’s love for him, he doesn’t really need them. He’s happy to take it on faith and nurture such hope, because it pleases him to think she likes him, after all. Even if such a reading of Stella’s behaviour is wrong, like an ‘error’ in a scholar’s reading of a literary passage, he’ll happily go along with it.

‘Hope, art thou true, or dost thou flatter me?’ is not the most famous sonnet in Astrophil and Stella, but it shows how many gems of poems can be found in this remarkable sequence, even in the less famous sections and among the less quoted sonnets.

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